Aharon Appelfeld is a survivor whose writing is stamped by a melancholy sense of the doom he managed to elude. Born in Czernovitz, Bukovina (then Rumanian, now within the Soviet Union), he was eight when the invading Germans sent him to a labor camp in 1940. His mother was killed, his father died in the camp; the boy managed in 1941 to escape into the inhospitable countryside, working as a shepherd and on farms for three years, hiding his identity from hunters of Jews, growing up without a proper adolescence. In 1944, he became a field cook for the Soviet army, after the armistice made his way to Italy with a small tide of refugees, and from there migrated to Palestine in 1946. Though he knew no Hebrew before the age of fourteen, he writes exclusively in his adopted language and is admired as a polished stylist. His published works in Israel include six collections of stories, eight novels, and one book of essays. The Retreat is Appelfeld’s fourth novel to be published in the United States.
The first, called Badenheim 1939 when David R. Godine, Publisher issued it in 1980, was titled Badenheim, ’ir nofesh in Hebrew, which translates literally as Badenheim, resort town. Badenheim is a Jewish summer resort near Vienna, clearly resonant of the existing Baden, whose visitors are middle to upper-middle class, addicted to rich pastries, strawberries, readings from Rainer Maria Rilke’s lyrics, concerts, and flirtations. The climate of mild skies, self-indulgent appetites, and idle conversation promises a Continental social comedy. It is, however, darkened by the Cassandran moods of the local pharmacist’s wife, herself ill, who has hallucinatory visions about her native Poland. Then the local sanitation department ominously extends its authority, registering all summer vacationers, preparing genealogies, festooning its walls with travel posters proclaiming that “The Air in Poland Is Fresher.” Most of the guests remain smugly optimistic about the prospect of leaving for Poland, whose cultural standards are said to be high, while porters unload rolls of barbed wire and cement pillars. The novel’s final paragraph savagely moves the Jews to a freight train headed east while a Panglossian entertainment impresario, Dr. Pappenheim, blindly asserts his faith in a rational and benevolent world. The author’s theme seems to be the inability of the bourgeois imagination to understand the total disaster of totalitarianism.
In Tor-ha-pela’ot (1978; The Age of Wonders, 1981), trains also play a crucial role: The first and longer book of the novel begins in a first-class train compartment, only to conclude in a cattle car. The narrator is a twelve-year-old boy whose return trip with his mother from a summer holiday is marred by an unscheduled stop far from any station. Politely, “all foreign passengers and all Austrian passengers who were not Christians by birth” are requested to register with the “security forces.” Reluctantly, a diversity of passengers file out to record their Jewishness; an elegant lady disdains to admit her kinship with what she regards as vulgar, lower-class Jews. Evidently, the Anschluss of March, 1938, has enfolded Austria within Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Nevertheless, Appelfeld refrains, here as in his other fiction, from direct allusion to historic events. All the boy knows is that “nothing would ever be the same again.” He finds his parents and their friends arguing obsessively about the nature of Jews and Judaism as anti-Semitic stresses increase by a series of incremental tremors.
The boy’s father is a famous Austrian writer, called “A.” in Kafkaesque fashion, whose lofty reputation is attacked by a sequence of articles calling his characters “Jews whowere now useless, corrupt, perverted; parasites living off the healthy Austrian tradition.” The critic, himself Jewish, dies, but his anti-Semitism is adopted by the father, who desperately advertises his assimilated Austrian outlook, curses the Jews “infesting Austria like rats,” and drifts into madness, writing pamphlets excoriating the Jewish petite bourgeoisie. Eventually he abandons his wife and son, fleeing to a Gentile mistress in Vienna; mother and boy are rounded up for a final journey on a “cattle train hurtling south.”
In book 2, about twenty-five years later, the reader discovers that the boy—now named Bruno—has somehow, like his creator, survived the Holocaust; his parents did not. Like Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kroeger, he returns to his native town, only to dawdle aimlessly in parks, bars, and eating places. He encounters several living relics from his boyhood, climaxing with a Jewish bachelor who married his Gentile...
(The entire section is 1934 words.)